What Does the Royals’ “Rebuild” Need to Look Like Going Forward?

Welp, after going to my second Royals win at the K on Wednesday night, the Royals were unable to win their third game at the K this season on Thursday afternoon. The eight-win ball club dropped the series finale to the Orioles in a wild 13-10 game that saw Kansas City overcome an 8-1 deficit only to blow it in the top of the eighth due to a plethora of walks and stolen bases allowed.

As expected, the deflating loss sparked plenty of outrage on Royals’ Twitter, even from the most passionate and optimistic of Royals fans. A prime example came from former Royals beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan, who typically has been one of the more positive Royals voices out there, with the exception of today.

The fact of the matter is this: the Royals are NOT going to be good in 2023.

This isn’t going to be like 2013, when the Royals overcame a rough May to eventually finish 86-76 and build the confidence needed to go on those playoff runs in 2014 and 2015. Nor is it going to be like 2011 or 2012 when they won 71 and 72 games, respectively.

This season is going to be something a whole lot different and probably, honestly, worse. It could be something like 2018 in terms of wins and losses, though that season’s 58-win mark may be a more optimistic outlook considering how the Royals’ first 32 games have gone so far in 2023.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, even though it may be frustrating to hear for Royals fans who are tired of all the losing since 2018.

That being said, this “rebuild” under JJ Picollo has to look and be built a certain way, especially during this initial season.

If it isn’t, the Royals under Picollo could fall into another vicious cycle like the last five years under Dayton Moore, where the Royals were technically “rebuilding” but didn’t do enough to ensure that a proper foundation in the organization was in place to take the next step forward in the win-loss column.

After 32 games, let’s take a look at what the Royals need to do (and what Royals fans need to expect) with this new “rebuilding” process under Picollo.

This Royals’ Rebuild Isn’t Going to Be Like Moore’s

There’s no doubt that the 2014 and 2015 seasons bring up many fond memories among Royals fans.

After all, Royals fans will celebrate Lorenzo Cain’s retirement on Saturday in front of an expected sellout crowd at Kauffman Stadium. That wouldn’t have happened if success evaded the Royals during that period of time.

During the Royals’ “first” rebuild, Moore helped the Royals overcome years of “rough” management by owner David Glass and created an organization that won two AL pennants in 2014 and 2015, and a World Series title in 2015. He created a solid blueprint for a championship organization despite a league structure that clearly worked against small markets like Kansas City. Since the Royals won a championship, no small market team has won a World Series title, which goes to show Royals fans how special that period of time was not just in Kansas City, but in the general baseball sphere as well.

That said, lightning rarely strikes twice in baseball, or professional sports in general. And unfortunately, Moore learned that the hard way.

He tried to emulate the “Process” again after 2017, opting to let former key stars like Cain, Wade Davis, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer go, and once again try to build a winner through scouting and player development. However, instead of “Process 2.0” producing incremental progress over time, the Royals bottomed out by 2022 with a 65-97 record, which not only cost manager Mike Matheny his job, but Moore as well after 16 seasons as the head executive of Kansas City.

Picollo has been with the Royals since Moore joined the organization in 2006, and that kind of tenure has Royals fans curious in regard to how he will approach this upcoming rebuild.

Will he continue to follow the “blueprint” that Moore used from 2006 to 2022? Or will Picollo be his own GM and forge his own path to building a winning club in the long term?

In some ways, Picollo has taken an approach that is both similar and different from what Moore embraced as the Royals’ head executive.

Unlike Moore, Picollo has seemed to embrace analytics at all levels throughout the organization, and that is highlighted by his hire of manager Matt Quatraro from Tampa. On the other hand, the Royals have also continued to fill in roster spots with veterans like Zack Greinke, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Franmil Reyes, even though they are clearly past their prime. That was something typical of Moore each season, and it kept the Royals from fully “engaging” in the rebuilding process.

In order for the Royals’ rebuild to be successful, it has to feel disconnected from the previous Moore “Process.”

While I mentioned this before in an off-season post, that requirement is even clearer now that we have seen the Royals in action in 2023. The Royals can’t be trying to find another “Hosmer” or “LoCain” or think every season will be like 2013. That era was nice, but it’s clear that it won’t happen again under Picollo or any other GM who should take the reigns in Kansas City.

The Royals and Royals fans need to move on from that period of time.

They need to quit comparing this group to the 2011-to-2017 one. When the Orioles went through their rebuild under Mike Elias, they weren’t looking to the 2012-to-2016 ones as a constant comparison. The same with the Astros in 2011, as they weren’t saying “We need to build this team like the 2004 and 2005 ones.”

It is good that the Royals have moved on from Moore. The coming months could determine how “much” Picollo will indeed deviate from his predecessor.

Nonetheless, it’s time to put 2014 and 2015 in the history books and stop using them as a measuring stick for “rebuilding success” for the Royals.

The Royals Need to Embrace the Tank to Get Top 3 Picks in the Draft

As hard as it is to say this for Royals fans who are frustrated after six straight losing seasons, this much is true in this current baseball landscape: If you’re a small-market, rebuilding club, you need to fully embrace the “tank”.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it basically means that while losing shouldn’t happen on purpose, it should be embraced as a necessary evil in order to garner more ideal draft positioning. While the Royals were “rebuilding” from 2018, they didn’t fully “embrace” the tank during that timespan.

On one end, the Royals lost a hefty amount of games, especially in 2018 and 2019, which can be seen below:

Though the Royals lost 100-plus games in 2018 and 2019, they only garnered one Top-3 pick since 2018, which ended up being Bobby Witt, Jr. While 2019 was bad, it only resulted in the No. 4 pick in the 2020 draft, and unfortunately, that pick, Asa Lacy, has failed to pan out, barring a dramatic development turnaround.

Now, let’s take a look at how the Astros and Orioles fared when they began the “rebuilding” process:

The Astros had three straight 100-plus loss seasons before beginning the turnaround process in 2014. The Orioles had three 100-plus loss seasons between 2018 and 2021 and would’ve probably had a fourth one had COVID not affected the season.

While the losses weren’t ideal for either club, it paid off with great positioning in the draft for a three-to-four-year stretch.

The Astros got three No. 1 picks from 2012 to 2014 and a No. 2 pick in 2015. That netted them Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, who became key franchise pieces.

As for Baltimore, they have gotten two No. 1 picks (2019 and 2022), a No. 2 pick (2020), and a No. 5 pick (2021). From those picks, the Orioles acquired a franchise catcher in Adley Rutschman and could have their franchise shortstop in Jackson Holliday.

The Royals need to have a three-to-four-year stretch where they can have No. 1 or No. 3 slots in the draft, which will allow them to draft the best available players and not play “slot” games, which they had a tendency to do in the later years of Moore’s tenure (though it may have worked with Frank Mozzicato and Ben Kudrna).

The Orioles and Astros were able to get franchise-altering players through a small stretch of tanking seasons. It would be beneficial for the Royals to do the same (though the lottery could make that strategy a little riskier).

The Royals Need to Focus On Prospect “Depth” Through Trades (Rather Than “MLB Ready” Prospects)

Another key for any rebuilding team in Major League Baseball is to trade as much “current” talent as possible for prospect capital. This is especially true for teams whose systems are bare with prospect depth, which was the case for the Astros and Orioles when they began their rebuilds.

The Astros and Orioles were willing to part with established fan favorites in order to get the depth necessary to not just stock their system, but also get players who could thrive with their player development team. The Astros and Orioles lost franchise faces like Hunter Pence and Lance Berkman (Houston) and Manny Machado and Kevin Gausman (Baltimore), but it ended up helping their systems and organizations as a whole in the long term.

Under Moore, the Royals didn’t exactly acquire a ton of prospect capital via trades, which ended up being a flaw in their “Process 2.0”.

Moore preferred more “MLB-ready” prospects with less upside in any trade return. Brett Phillips, Brian Goodwin, and Jorge Lopez are examples of acquired prospects who had value and were technically MLB-ready. That being said, they were also acquired after lackluster MLB tenures with their previous organizations, and they lacked Minor League options as well, which forced the Royals to “give up” on them sooner than they should have.

Targeting those kinds of prospects was due to the fact that Moore wanted to end the “rebuilding” process sooner rather than later and thought MLB-ready prospects were the way to do so.

Unfortunately, what it did was hamstring the Royals’ roster, for they either needed to keep them at the MLB level due to their lack of options or DFA them in order to make space for other prospects in the Royals system. It would’ve done the Royals a lot better to focus more on high-upside prospects with more years of team control and a greater number of them in exchange for trades, even if they carried more risk and required more time for those prospects to matriculate to the MLB level.

As a result, the Royals have a lackluster roster that lacks hitting and pitching depth at the MLB level and is also bare in terms of high-end prospects in the Minor League system as well. That is not a combination for organizational success.

Let’s hope Picollo identifies this prospect need and is able to respond a lot differently during the 2023 season when it comes to making transactions.

The Royals Can’t Be Too “Loyal” With Any Player

The fact of the matter is that during this rebuild, Picollo and the Royals front office have to identify who will be key players going forward and build around those players in the short and long term.

The Astros did that by focusing heavily on Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yordan Alvarez, to name a few. The Orioles have seemed to look toward Rutschman, Cedric Mullins, and Gunnar Henderson as their cornerstones, though it will be interesting to see if they will come to extensions with those two anytime soon.

The Royals, on the other hand, are still figuring that core out.

Is Witt, Jr. part of that core, even with a profile that compares eerily similar to Adalberto Mondesi’s so far?

Will MJ Melendez be a Royals franchise player, even though he doesn’t have a set position after 32 games this year?

Or what about Vinnie Pasquantino, who’s obviously taken a leadership role on this team, but may be pushed out of the first base position defensively due to Nick Pratto’s prowess with the glove (though Pratto pales as a hitter compared to Vinnie)?

The Royals need to find one or two or three key players, invest in them immediately (similar to Atlanta), and then explore any kind of trade with any other Royals player in order to boost their prospect capital.

And that doesn’t just involve veterans like Jordan Lyles, Amir Garrett, or Aroldis Chapman, who are expected to be traded at some point due to their short-term contract statuses in Kansas City. Rather, it can include highly-lauded prospects like Pratto, Michael Massey, or even MJ, if they are deemed not worth “keeping” in the long term.

Even future Royals Hall of Famers like Greinke and Salvy need to be in that mix, even if it may pain Royals fans to do so.

The Royals are three years away likely from competing, and that’s if they draft, sign, and develop properly and acquire the necessary prospect capital via trade. Keeping Greinke and Salvy automatically is a waste of resources, both on a roster and financial end.

They will have their spots in the Royals Hall of Fame someday. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to “retire” on the field in a Royals uniform.

Those decisions are hard. They aren’t easy for Kansas City sports fans who connect so easily with their stars. But it hasn’t worked out for the Royals in the past.

The Royals probably should’ve let Alex Gordon walk in free agency after the 2015 season. They held onto Hosmer, and Cain for too long and didn’t really receive anything in return when they left. And that inactivity ended up contributing to where the Royals are now (in addition to poor scouting, drafting, and player development, though it has improved over the past three years).

The Astros and Orioles didn’t have that kind of “loyalty”. The Astros traded Lance Berkman in 2010, and that cleared the way for an eventual Astros turnaround. The Orioles were in the Wild Card hunt last year, and they still traded away fan favorite Trey Mancini.

Those are the kind of deals that would have never happened under Moore. He understood how “sentimental” the Royals fanbase can be, and he didn’t want to deal with that kind of backlash.

This is where Picollo can really separate himself from his predecessor.

He needs to identify those key two or three players, convince owner John Sherman to ink them for the long term, and make everyone else expendable with the hope that they can get a crop of prospects that can turn into excellent long-term pieces (and pieces that won’t break the bank either).

There will be backlash of course if Salvy or Zack is gone…

But the Royals need to turn the page and be a new kind of organization in order to succeed in this current MLB landscape.

Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports


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